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How does air pollution affect cognitive performance?

Can technology help tackle air quality

Our Ultimate Guide to Indoor Air Quality and Air Pollution explores how air quality can impact our health, and we’ve also explored how air pollution could be linked with crime rates. Now, research suggests the quality of the air we breathe could impact our intelligence. Here we examine the latest findings and what this could mean for designing and building our homes and schools.

How does air pollution affect cognitive performance?

In a recent study, researchers in China looked at how air pollution affected people’s cognitive performance – for example their ability to pay attention, remember things and process new information – during maths and verbal tests.

They found that as people age, the correlation between air pollution and their mental ability in such tests became stronger. And this link doesn’t just pose a challenge for the individual, but the wider society too.

As the research paper states: “The damage on the ageing brain by air pollution likely imposes substantial health and economic costs, considering that cognitive functioning is critical for the elderly for both running daily errands and making high-stake decisions.”

Although the research was carried out in China, it has implications all over the world. In the UK, for example, we have an ageing population and it’s expected that by 2039 there will be 74 million people in the UK. And although emissions of some air pollutants are beginning to decline, there are still dangerous levels with many people facing health risks from breathing in pollutants

Does air pollution impact children’s achievements at school?

If extended exposure to air pollution affects our cognitive performance as we get older, are children and young people also at risk when they’re at school?

A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests if students change schools that are located in areas with high levels of traffic pollution, they experience more behavioural incidents and absences, as well as lower test scores.

Another research project studied the relationships between the levels of air pollutants and children’s brain structures and cognitive performance. They found that just a small increase in some indoor and outdoor air pollutants reduced performance and affected the development of part of the brain that is involved in a number of health problems, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and Alzheimer’s Disease. The study found that even when air pollutant levels were in line with European Union recommendations, it still had an impact on children’s brain structures, suggesting that legislation should be re-evaluated.

With reports indicating that some students in London schools are exposed to higher levels of air pollution inside the classroom than outside, such findings are likely to cause real concern for parents, teachers and the government. 

Designing and building for indoor air comfort

As part of the Multi Comfort concept, there are a number of steps that architects, designers, builders and developers can take to help improve the indoor air quality in homes, schools and other buildings.

Ventilation – whether natural, automated or a combination of the two – can help to make sure there’s a steady supply of fresh air. It’s also important to filter incoming and outgoing air to remove harmful particulates, and air purification systems can help to do this. Finally, we need to specify building materials that minimise CO2 and volatile organic compounds. Some modern construction materials and products are developed to actively remove harmful pollutants and chemicals from the air.

We’re only just beginning to realise just how harmful air pollution is on our bodies and minds, but already the evidence shows how we should prioritise tackling the issue. Yes, reducing pollution at the source is vital. But as we spend up to 90% of our time indoors, we also need to make sure we’re designing and constructing homes, schools and other buildings to provide the cleanest air possible for the occupiers.

Discover what indoor air comfort is and how it affects us by watching this explainer video.

Disclaimer: The sole responsibility for any views expressed lies with the author(s). Any opinions shared do not necessarily represent the views of Saint-Gobain.

Ieuan Compton
Ieuan Compton Head of Marketing Services
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